Updated: Mar 3
Ahh, the stamping of well-used passports, the faint smell of airplane fuel wafting through the gates and down the endless corridors, the exciting rush of international travel to destinations far and wide, the airport lounge with those hardened travelers drinking bloody marys at eight in the morning, and the quarter-of-a-million-euro surrealist paintings stuffed in the bottom of mucky trash cans.
Just an ordinary day at Düsseldorf Airport in 2020, as much as any day in 2020 at an airport could be.
And it was just an ordinary day at Christie’s auction house two years earlier, when another work of art, blurry at the edges, out of proportion in several places, and just plain odd all-over, sold for more than three-hundred thousand euros. Of course, that’s still almost thirteen-hundred times less than their best painting sale, the disputed Salvator Mundi, allegedly the work of the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci.
The story of these two works of art, the untitled trash-can piece and the blurry-faced oddity are both surreal, in more ways than one would have ever guessed.
The first was traveling from Germany to Israel a few weeks ago, in the less-than-capable hands of a man whose venti-half whole milk-half non-fat-extra-hot-split quad shots-no-foam latte, with three short sprinkles of cinnamon, took precedence over the Yves Tanguy landscape he was in charge of.
The second was titled Portrait of Edmond de Belamy, and was created in 2018 by a machine. It is, in fact, a generative adversarial network portrait, though don't tell the artificial intelligence that in case they throw a fit and cut their ear off.
Tanguy, who was a real person born in Paris in 1900, determined he would become a painter after bumping into a Giorgio de Chirico piece, and, once introduced to André Robert Breton and his scintillating circle of surrealist sirens, embarked almost immediately on a career as a method artist, often completely and unshakably absorbed in his latest work.
In contrast, Portrait of Edmond de Belamy, was the work of a machine designed and given life by a French-based collective called Obvious, though the process to get the portrait produced was far from that. The group fed their algorithm over fifteen-thousand human-created paintings, from all genres and eras, and ‘trained’ it to create its own works, without their further input or oversight. It wasn’t happy with all of them, of course, though what artist ever is, but the machine and the collective finally agreed on one piece that seemed to have captured many of the elements of the examples it had been given to work with, and offered a semblance of a work of art.
In contrast, our man in Düsseldorf grabbed his boarding pass and settled comfortably in his seat, and, we can imagine, sank into the chair with that post-airport fatigue, to relax on the four-hour direct flight to Tel Aviv. At some point during those opening moments, maybe as the attendant was explaining what to do in the event of a water-landing, because of the three-billion or so flights in the last fifty years, twenty have landed on water, so you better be prepared, a sudden realization struck our artwork-unencumbered traveler.
I can hear the scream from here.
Meanwhile, Tanguy, buoyed by Breton’s patronage and the12-pieces-a-year contract he awarded him, developed a unique style of ‘nonrepresentational surrealism’, and showcased it in 1927, at his first solo exhibition in Paris. He followed that by adopting the then-fashionable bohemian lifestyle of the pre-Nazi years in the thrities, which helped bring his first marriage, and his ability to feed himself, to an abrupt end.
He continued painting though, often rendering stark two-tone alien landscapes, with scatterings of abstract forms, some plants, some extraterrestrial and unrecognizable shapes. But enough about Texas. He also contrived odd organic-like blobs that seemed to have been frozen by some force, though there's probably a better description than that for them, and one I’m sure the desperate man in seat 12B used when explaining, in breathless gasps and clutches of his heaving chest, to the flight attendants what exactly he’d left behind, and where exactly he’d left it.
No such worries for Obvious, who’s printed seven-hundred millimeter square picture was proudly titled Portrait of Edmond de Belamy (with a nod to a ‘beautiful friend), and given the gravitas of the ‘first artwork created using artificial intelligence to be featured in a Christie's auction’, with a pre-auction estimate of around eight-thousand euros.
Obvious had created an auction-worthy portrait without leaving the room.
Tanguy, however, needed a bit more latitude, and found it in London.
In the final years of the 1930s, he went there for his first retrospective exhibition of his recent previous work, and hung his art proudly in the Guggenheim Jeune, and his hat on Peggy Guggenheim’s bedpost. Despite his soon-to-be ex-wife’s presence, he managed a spectacular affair with her. She purchased two of his works, and the show was a fabulous success. It led Tanguy out of his poverty-stricken artist phase at last, but, unfortunately, right into his abusive artist phase instead, with his second wife, also a Surrealist artist, the long-suffering Kay Sage.
The pair eventually moved to Connecticut, in the United States, to drink themselves silly, and fight a lot, as artists are wont to do.
Obvious needed no alcohol to ease the pain of their artistic angst.
But I suspect our frequent-flier, who had to endure the entire flight to Tel Aviv knowing his artwork sat unattended and lonely at the check-in desk, certainly did, to avoid having a stroke.
On arrival in Israel, he was able to finally contact the Düsseldorf airport authorities, who despite a thorough search of every check-in desk, were unable to locate even a trace of the piece. He next enlisted the help of his nephew in Belgium, who made the journey to Düsseldorf Airport in super-fast time in his Edran Enigma (maybe), and joined the search team.
Still nothing. The painting had disappeared, much like Tanguy’s good humor and self-control.
In their home in Woodbury, his artistic torment manifested badly. He regularly assaulted Sage verbally and emotionally, and even physically when he threatened her with a knife at a dinner party. After a time, Sage became numb to the abuse, as many women do when the onslaught is unrelenting, and she tried her best to ignore, or at least stabilize, the situation.
The angst was also seen in his paintings, where he often conjured what has been interpreted as a sense of doom, with empty stretches leading to distant, impossible horizons, lonely objects sitting solitarily on dusty blank plains, helpless alien figures, small against the vastness of dull skies, with titles often taken from psychiatric patients’ statements in medical journals.
Eventually, the Belgian relative was able to involve the Düsseldorf police commissioner himself, who with, one might suspect, a certain sense of dread, decided to have his team of detectives trawl the trash collected by the very efficient cleaning company at the airport. After some time, and some dissent one imagines, the force found, at the very bottom of a recycling bin, a well-wrapped flat package, about the size of a surrealist painting by a French artist.
For Obvious and their artificial intelligence artwork production, Portrait of Edmond de Belamy proved to be the first and last big-ticket machine-made piece, with two further works auctioned at Sotheby's from private collections selling for around but not much more than their estimates, and almost ninety-five percent lower than the Belamy portrait.
For our now-gray-haired transcontinental traveler, that package turned out to be his missing painting, and it was returned to him, with a cautionary note about not leaving baggage unattended.
And as for its artist, Raymond Georges Yves Tanguy, he died suddenly in 1955, the last stroke he, or his brush, ever experienced.
photo by Daian Gan